Expansion Project Vol I
Expansion Project Vol II
Like the University of Central Florida, The University of South Florida (USF) still has its “new university smell”, conceived and founded just sixty years ago. In that time it has grown considerably, currently consisting of three institutions within its own system (Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota-Manatee) with Tampa enrolling 41,000 students on its own.
Unlike a lot of the other candidates, it doesn’t have a lot of history to draw down upon. Like the area it resides, USF has exploded along with the Tampa/St. Pete metro over the past thirty years. The Bulls have a lot going for them and against them that they’ll need to overcome. Word on the street is that South Florida is among the final ten to present in Dallas, so let’s look at how they compare
The University of South Florida’s Brand and Culture score places it in the top half of the FBS, which is definitely a great place to be. Of the schools in the AAC it is just behind Connecticut and Tulane in Rights and Licensing, coming in just above TCU, which is the lowest in the Big 12. There is still much work to do, however, as the middle of the Big 12 averages around twice as much as the Bulls do. Enhanced exposure should increase that, but the school will need to invest heavily in marketing as well.
As mentioned previously, the University of South Florida, while fourth in Florida, is a large school. All three of its campuses combine for 48,000 students, but 41,000 are enrolled at the main campus in Tampa. More importantly around 36,000 of those are undergraduates who tend to embrace college sports more fervently as a group and continue to hold on to that connection as alumni than graduate students.
When looking at the combined Brand and Culture score, the University of South Florida seems to be a potential diamond in the rough, which was definitely a surprise in the numbers for me. It jumps to the top of the expansion candidates in the AAC and solidly over BYU in terms of scoring, who has less licensing.
The location score factors in the distance a candidate is from two points on a map; the geographic center of the Big 12 and Morgantown West Virginia. The Bulls don’t really shine too well when compared that way, dropping to the bottom half of the FBS in location score.
They reside 1,120 miles away from the geographic center of the Big 12, only UConn and BYU were further away. It was basically the same distance away as Temple, but the Owls were much closer to West Virginia.
USF, by comparison was 954 miles away from Morgantown, West Virginia. Like Central Florida, they basically turn the Big 12’s footprint into a box with to singular corners on one end. Many argue with me that this wouldn’t matter, but I am not aware of a power conference that currently looks like that, except the Big 12 with West Virginia. Generally within the major conferences there is some attempt at geographic cohesiveness, so it would make most sense that growth would occur towards the Big 12’s current outlier, not create a new one.
For any negative that they bare for their distance from two points on a map is likely overridden by the potential new market they bring. Not only do they reside within Florida, the third largest state in the nation, but also the number one state in the nation for blue chip (four and five star) football recruits. Upping the ante on this a bit, the Bulls sit in the middle of the Tampa/St. Pete DMA which is the 11th largest in the nation and the largest DMA in Florida with 1.86 million homes. Tampa-St.Pete is just behind Houston in size and the only other potential expansion candidate with a large DMA is Temple (2.9m homes). It is also growing very fast, currently listed as the 13th fastest growing metro in the United States.
Like other metros within the Big 12, Tampa has three professional teams in the Buccaneers (NFL), Lightning (NHL), and the Rays (MLB). However, much like the discussions with Temple, who proved the Philly market tunes in when power teams like Penn State and Notre Dame come to play, could USF also see a spike in ratings in the largest market in Florida if the Big 12 comes to play? While they haven’t recently, USF’s ratings were solid during their most recent Big East success prior to realignment and the demotion of their conference.
The University of South Florida is currently sitting on a hot spot of natural resources to develop, but has not done so consistently. It currently earns $45 million, 47.8% of that coming from subsidies and that is down from last year when they earned $48 million with only 39% from subsidies. Either way you look at it, that’s a lot of subsidies to continue year in or year out.
Currently only Houston and Tulane have worse books than USF in the AAC. Those numbers put them at the bottom half of the FBS, which isn’t great, but they are also significantly less than the Power Five average. To make matters worse, the Big 12 is one of the most financially strong conferences within the Power Five, making the Bulls climb up all that more difficult. To match the bottom of the Big 12, it will need to raise revenues by $30 million and reduce subsidies by $20 million. That $50 million swing to reach the bottom of the Big 12 is not possible by a media deal alone. They’ll need to fill seats.
USF looks like many FBS schools, including Power Five schools, when it comes to attendance; fan support shrinks and swells based on success. It is the rare schools who come out and support when the teams are down. Looking over the past few years, USF have been down, so they score poorly when it comes to attendance.
USF has hovered around 30,000 for football and 4,500 for men’s basketball over the past few seasons. This aligns them closer to Central Florida and Houston than Cincinnati or UConn. Compared to the Big 12 it is close to TCU’s numbers, but far below the rest of the Big 12 who have either massive football attendance or basketball attendance or both.
While this is a negative, I went back several years to see if they ever trended well and, it appears they did. Back in the 2007 season they averaged around 53,000 in Raymond James Stadium, which included several games over 65,000 when they were ranked. Another data point to compare USF with is their games against West Virginia, who has been consistently good within the Big East. In their time in the same conference, the Bulls upset West Virginia three times, twice at home, and the attendance within those games was 67,012 and 56,328. If USF increased their average to 50,000 for Big 12 play they’d not only solve a lot of their financial woes, but also rank seventh in the Big 12, ahead of Kansas, TCU, and Baylor. Now, this was nearly a decade ago, but it does show the market and fan base does support the team when it is successful, at least in football.
Like Temple’s advantage and Lincoln Financial, the benefit of playing in the Buccaneer’s Raymond James Stadium is that they can swell to a max of 65,890 seats for big games without having to invest or build their own stadium. Ironically, USF has the two largest non-Super Bowl crowds in the stadium, including 67,018 against West Virginia and 69,383 against Florida State in 2012. While it is still 10 miles from campus, outdrawing the home town Bucs on occasion definitely shows potential.
As mentioned previously in the comparison with the University of Central Florida, USF is very new. Most of the schools in the Big 12 were formed in the 1800s. However, in the past sixty years the Bulls have exploded in growth not seen in most universities.
A lot of this advancement was in academics. At its inception the administration of USF did not want to devote much attention at all to athletics and, instead, focused on building up their academic endeavors. Not only does USF have a lot of students, but they are also increasing in their ranking across numerous colleges. There are various rankings that flow in and out every year, but on a worldwide ranking USF has seen their medical schools jump into the top 101-150 in 2012 and their math, chemistry, computer science and econ jump into the 150-200 rankings. That should start to elevate their institutional ranking over the next several years if the trend continues.
Additionally, the number that really stands out to me is the amount of research expenditures they have year over year. The Tampa campus alone ranks 41st in the nation with $488 million this past period. To compare; the University of Texas ranks 34th, only the University of Florida out ranks USF in Florida, and it is still higher than schools like Iowa, Maryland, Colorado, Virginia, Georgia, etc. Of the expansion candidates from the AAC and BYU, it has the highest amount of R&D expenditures, even eclipsing research powerhouse and potential AAU candidate, Cincinnati.
While USF has focused heavily in academics in its short time, it didn’t focus on athletics until just recently. Its football program did not start playing football until 1997, after the formation of the Big 12, and they did not move in to FBS until 2001, fifteen years ago. Most Big 12 programs have a hundred years of history, the Bulls barely have two decades. That doesn’t give them a large brand to build from.
Remember though that Florida State didn’t start fielding a football program until 1947, when the school finally went coeducational and it didn’t become overly competitive until Bowden arrived in the mid-seventies. Everything they’ve accomplished to support their national brand have occurred in the past thirty years. “The U” was able to leverage their local area as Miami exploded in growth and amass five national titles in eighteen years starting in the 80s with a campus enrollment a quarter of USF’s. Florida didn’t win anything until the mid nineties, when it got three in twelve years.
While down currently, the Bulls hold the distinction of being the fastest team to go from joining the FBS to being ranked at 104 weeks, fastest to go from joining the FBS to being in the Top Ten at 106 weeks, and the fastest team to go from joining the FBS to a Top 5 ranking at 107 weeks. They’ve already had nine Top 25 upsets, including teams such as Notre Dame, Florida State, Auburn and current Big 12 members Kansas and West Virginia.
Considering they showed they can have success in the market, which is considerable, and they put a massive amount of effort into increasing their research and academics, these could be the kinds of intangibles that puts the Bulls over the edge if they can prove to the Big 12 that they can invest heavily in athletics as well. The nice thing is USF can recruit heavily in their own state and have no negative impact against the rest of the Big 12’s recruitment, unlike other candidates. USF would be getting recruits the Big 12 doesn’t normally sniff and potentially opening up the state for teams who do recruit there often like West Virginia and Iowa State, much like playing in Texas assists the Oklahoma and Kansas schools.
After taking into consideration all the positives and negatives discussed, we start to get a clear picture of the value the University of South Florida brings the Big 12.
USF is hovering right around the mid-point of the FBS because of three key areas: Financial Strength, Attendance, and Location.
Attendance has been shown to be fickle for the Bulls, but the fan base, as new as it is, as proven it will show up for success. Can they repeat that success when joining the grind of the Big 12? Considering their record against West Virginia is solid that’s a good indicator. Additionally, within Florida, they hold winning records against all but the big three. Within those games they are 1-2 against Florida State, 1-5 against Miami, and 0-1 against Florida. The bulk of recruits in Florida reside in Miami, Tampa and Orlando. While Florida and Florida State will still get their players, USF could start to pull recruits away from the bulk of out of state schools, of which there are many. This could allow them to grow their team like Miami, without really effecting Florida State nor Florida’s recruiting.
If attendance improves, the finances improve. Currently USF’s financial score is dragging it down, even if it is slightly above other AAC members, like Houston. If you factor out the subsidies USF is $50 million in revenue below the lowest school in the Big 12 and $65 million from the middle of the pack. Joining the Big 12 will likely jump USF about $15-20 million immediately as the media deal will phase in slowly over time. Without a lot of athletic history, can the university get donations up along with attendance to cover that gap? Last year South Florida had $2.5 million in contributions and $4.2 million from ticket sales. Tenth place Iowa State had $21 million in contributions and $14 million in ticket sales. That’s another $30 million right there, if the university has a plan for the Big 12 in how they’ll achieve it.
Lastly, their location isn’t ideal, creating another island for the conference to fly over other conferences to visit. However, if you are going to create a new island, choosing a school in the largest metro area in the third largest state in the nation that is also the 13th fastest growing metro in the United States is not a bad island to develop.
All in all, while the University of South Florida scores moderately due to some issues, its education, research and past success in football give it a solid foundation to pitch to the Big 12. Maybe in 20 years it can create a football dynasty of its own and catch the University of Florida in research. Now that really would be a catch for the Big 12 to develop.
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